Remember how earlier this month I was advocating for a cinematic universe of quirky, daft, lovable British disruptors? First we had The Duke, then The Phantom of the Open. Now we can add Brian and Charles to the list. Seriously, let’s keep going with this. It’s infinitely more clever and enjoyable than anything Marvel or DC has crapped out in the last two years.
An adaptation of a short film from 2017 created by and starring David Earl and Chris Hayward (and directed by Jim Archer), the principal players expand to feature length with one of the sillier stories in recent memory. What makes it truly memorable, however, is how deftly the character dynamics evolve over the course of events.
Presented as a mockumentary, Earl plays Brian, a lonely bachelor in a small Welsh village who spends his days tinkering around in his shed creating all matter of useless inventions, everything from purses bedazzled with pinecones to a grandfather clock mounted on a fan-powered bicycle that he intends to fly (it somehow catches fire). It’s monumentally stupid, but that’s sort of the point. A man with an overactive imagination and an unhealthy love of cabbages, Brian is the sort of person who believes he can stumble into accidental genius, and there’s a kernel of wisdom in that idea, which makes him a character worth rooting for. No one ever truly knows if an idea will take off and be successful, and so many revolutionary inventions happened completely as a side effect to the creator’s original intent, so in his own way, Brian is a model of ideal innovation.
Still, he is something of a pathetic figure. He clearly doesn’t make much money (one offhanded scene shows him working as a handyman of sorts), and the townsfolk take pity on him enough that they just let him have dented cans of food at the market without paying. The closest things he has to outside relations involve being bullied by a local tough named Eddie (Jamie Michie) and his Veruca Salt-esque twin teenage daughters (Lowri and Mari Izzard, no relation to comedian Eddie Izzard as far as I can tell), and an awkward attraction to an equally shy woman called Hazel (Louise Brealey).
It is this need for true companionship that leads Brian to his next whim project, creating a robot. Using whatever spare parts he can assemble from his own storage and the local garbage tip (UK for “dump”), he assembles a humanoid-looking contraption, its most prominent features being a washing machine for a torso and a mannequin head with one glowing blue eye. It’s equal parts off-putting and endearing, a sign of Brian’s earnestness combined with his complete lack of know-how.
And yet somehow, someway, it works. After a few failed attempts at activating the robot, one day it simply comes to life (in a fashion completely true to Brian’s character, he attempts a half-assed explanation where a rat that lives in his shed might have walked onto some wires in just the right position to make them connect properly). Teaching itself to communicate by reading a dictionary, the robot (played by Hayward) chooses the name Charles Petrescu for itself.
Some very silly antics ensue with this newfound friendship, but they’re also endlessly charming. The crux of it comes down to how Brian and Charles interact with one another, and how that relationship shifts. Initially, Charles is not only childlike, but sometimes more reminiscent of an excited puppy, albeit one that talks like an English version of Mr. Macintosh. At this point, Brian treats Charles like his new best mate, teaching him things like how to take part in his hobbies and chores, giving himself an extra pair of hands and someone to chat with.
But from there, the fantasy gives way to reality, and circumstances force the roles to be redefined. Fearing what Eddie and his brood might do, Brian decides to keep Charles a secret, with only Hazel being deemed trustworthy enough to know, and even her knowledge comes unintentionally. This leads to a more parent/child dynamic, as Brian becomes forceful and restrictive, while Charles somehow develops the robotic equivalent of teen angst. Brian takes an authoritative stance on keeping Charles in the house for his protection, which only fuels Charles’ wanderlust, particularly to see Honolulu, which he oddly enough can’t pronounce despite hearing it multiple times and understanding the books that literally define the English language.
The reason any of this works is because of the committed performances of the leads. Earl and Hayward play off each other in ways you would never expect, and the pair have such tremendously developed personalities (especially difficult coming from Charles, who cannot make any facial expressions) that the sheer absurdity of the entire film feels almost quaint. It’s a high concept presented with such a low amount of technology that it creates something that comes close to idyllic by complete accident. I’d almost call it alchemy if it wasn’t intentionally chintzy, and it’s amazing how easily the emotional stakes sneak up on you because of it.
There are only two things in the film that don’t quite work for me, but thankfully, the quality of everything else far outweighs them. The first is Charles’ design. Don’t get me wrong, I love the look of it. It’s distinctive and memorable (especially the way he dresses himself), and leads to a great amount of the film’s comedy. But, have you ever tried to life a washing machine? Those things are massive and heavy. I have a hard time believing that Brian could have attached something so bulky to human-sized artificial legs and have the structure be able to maintain its shape under all that weight. It’d be like gluing a boulder to wooden stilts and expecting it to walk.
The second is the menace posed by Eddie and his family, and the fact that nobody does anything about it. I get that they’re dicks and bullies, but last I checked, police do exist. I understand if the film wanted to handwave the option of law enforcement intervention away for the sake of simplicity and the story, but the fact that it’s never even mentioned is arguably the weirdest part of this movie, which again, is about a robot made from a dishwasher and a mannequin head.
For example, Brian could reasonably mention to the unseen documentary crew filming him (we do occasionally hear them ask questions from offscreen) that if he called the cops to report someone trying to steal his robot he’d be laughed off as some sort of nutter. Or just as easily, he could note that given the very small size of the village, there isn’t a truly local police force, and that if he called for help, the nearest officer is in the next town over and would take more time than was available to get real assistance. That’s all you need. Just a quick line of dialogue, similar to the very fast aside about how Charles was successfully turned on by the rat.
I mean, Eddie is established as being a threatening presence for the entire town (yet somehow everyone attends his annual bonfire like it’s the premiere event for them all, and much fun is had), not just for our titular heroes. Yet no one ever thinks to get the law involved when he pulls his crap? I don’t buy it. This didn’t have to be a major sticking point of the story, but the fact that it’s the most obvious solution to the problem creates a huge, glaring plot hole when it’s literally never brought up as a possibility.
Apart from that, however, this was just a load of simple, silly fun. This was a darling of the Sundance Film Festival, and during the London leg, it won the Audience Prize. I can certainly see why. This is exactly the sort of film that any casual viewer can watch and enjoy, and it has moments that are downright enchanting. Some of the most memorable stories use extreme means to get simple points across. Brian and Charles is a textbook example.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What appliance would you use to create a new best friend? How would you react to seeing a robot traveling the world? Let me know!